Update

According to a report by Telecomtalk, the ban on bulk SMS does not include transactional messages related to institutions such as banking, financial institutes, and railways. Apart from that, the ban on bulk SMS (more than 5) will be only executed on prepaid connections and not postpaid connections. Telecom operators could not implement the ban on postpaid connections due to technical limitations in their GSM/CDMA system.

Original Post

A reading of the notice sent to access service providers on banning Bulk SMS show how knee-jerk the reaction is. The notification, of which MediaNama has a copy mentions only the following:

“(a) Block bulk SMS (more than 5) for the next 15 days in the entire country across all states/UTs
(b) Block Bulk MMS (More than 5) and all MMS with attachment more than 25 KB for the next 15 day in the entire country across all states/UTs.”

Why This Is Poorly Thought Out

1. Why block legitimate bulk SMS? If you’ve booked a cab or a ticket, why shouldn’t you get a message? If you’ve asked for notification when paying by credit card, why shouldn’t you get a message? The TRAI has clearly identified the difference between transactional and person-to-person messaging. There is absolutely no reason or rationale wherein the transactional pipe is being blocked, because the sender is (or should be) clearly identified. Surely, those in the Department of Telecom should have taken this into consideration.

2. Messaging is moving beyond telcos: The notification assumes that bulk messaging is more than 5 messages, and beyond that limit, text messages over telecom networks are not being sent. This restricts the viral effect of text messages, which the government was perhaps trying to address, but it forgets that messaging can also take place over data, using applications. For example, my colleague Anupam is unable to send SMS now, so messaged me over Whatsapp, a data based messaging application which also supports multimedia content. Do people user MMS over telecom networks anyway? The government cannot contain messaging by blocking it over telecom networks. We’ll soon come to a stage where they start exerting control over data based messaging applications.

3. Alternatives There is no justification for the spread of false information which endangers the lives of those belonging to a particular ethnic community and tries to create a situation of panic. However, even in these situations, a blanket ban in unjustifiable. The deaf community, for example, relies extensively on P2P messaging for communication. I know, because someone in my family does. Instead, why doesn’t the government use the same medium – text messaging – to ask for people to be calm (DON’T PANIC) and ask them to stop spreading false information. Set up a helpline and ask people to report instances of spreading of false rumors.

From what we’ve heard (and this is unconfirmed), the government does monitor messaging for specific keywords; can’t they put their snooping to good use and block specific keywords for a particular timeframe?

Yes, there are workarounds, but with the growth in mobile messaging, and messaging moving out of the control of telecom networks, the government will have its work cut out.

4. Freedom of speech: What this reminds us is that the Indian government has complete control of telecom networks, and in instances where it believes that national security or national integration is under threat, it can take unilateral action of blocking user access to the Internet, to mobile calling and messaging. These bans can be knee-jerk, poorly thought out, and so far, we haven’t seen any specific rationale from the government about why they chose a blanket ban over other alternatives.

This is a sign of things to come.

Update: The Internet And Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) has issued the following statement on the SMS Ban:-

1. Blanket ban is not in the public interest. Banning communication systems in such a critical time can worsen the law-and-order situation rather than improving it. The lack of truthful news messages creates an information vacuum which increases anxiety and drives people even more toward unreliable rumors.

2. “Smart” ban is the right alternative. The government should ban just the bad messages, not all messages. Content filtering tools are available with the industry to prevent messages that spread rumors and fan hatred. Just as it doesn’t make sense to jail everyone to prevent the 1% mischief-makers, it doesn’t make sense to ban all messages for the 0.001% rumors.

3. SMS can help improve law-and-order. SMS is a powerful tool for delivering instant communication to millions of people. Law-and-order agencies can, in fact, use this system to deliver good quality information that will help dispel and counter rumors, helping calm a jittery public. The ban is a lost opportunity for the agencies.

4. The industry proposes a SMS Monitoring System to help the law-and-order agencies to instantly filter sensitive messages during a crisis. Furthermore, the system will help the agencies do real-time monitoring of suspicious parties spreading malicious rumors.